Hampton, GA – With two races to go before the regular season concludes, just three drivers have punched their tickets into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Jimmie Johnson, the current points leader, and Clint Bowyer, who is second in the standings, have clinched a top-10 spot in the Chase. Matt Kenseth secured at least a wild card position with his fifth win of the season last weekend at Bristol.
Several more drivers are expected to lock down their playoff spots on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The Chase cut-off race is Sept. 7 at Richmond.
The magic number for this weekend at Atlanta is 49, meaning any driver 49 points ahead of 11th will clinch a top-10 spot in the Chase. A 38th-place finish or better for Carl Edwards will earn him a position, and a 31st-place run or higher for Kevin Harvick will put him in the playoffs. Kyle Busch can clinch a top-10 if he finishes 10th or better.
Kenseth is currently sixth in points. If he finishes seventh or higher at Atlanta, he earns a top-10 spot for the Chase.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Joey Logano are seventh through 10th, respectively, in points. Martin Truex Jr. (14th in points) and Ryan Newman (15th) hold the two wild cards right now.
The separation between Earnhardt and 11th-place Brad Keselowski is 33 points. Earnhardt, Kahne, Biffle and Logano all conceivably could reach the 49-point magic number.
Logano has been on a roll lately, scoring five consecutive top-10 finishes, including a victory on Aug. 18 at Michigan. He has moved up eight positions in the standings since the July 28 race at Indianapolis. Logano is only four points ahead of Keselowski, his Penske Racing teammate.
"We have clawed our way into the top-10 in points from 19th twice this year," Logano said. "That's huge. That's how you prove you don't give up. So these guys on this (No. 22 Penske Racing) team, they deserve to be in the top-10 and in the Chase."
Logano has struggled at Atlanta, finishing no better than 18th in his six races here. This is his first season with Penske after spending the past four years with Joe Gibbs Racing.
"We plan on doing nothing different at Atlanta," he said. "We want to just keep doing what we have been doing. We have been fighting back all year long, so if we go into the weekend with the same mindset, then we will hopefully continue to perform at the level we have been.
"We have put ourselves in the position that we need to be right now. So now we just need to build on it. Keep gaining points and keep getting the best finish that we can. That's how we are going to go into these final two weeks. The Chase is our ultimate goal."
Keselowski won five races en route to the Sprint Cup Series championship last year, but he has yet to score a victory this season. He is coming off a 30th- place finish at Bristol.
"I'm not gonna be out of the worried zone unless I make it or it's over, and that's my job as a race car driver," Keselowski said after he dropped from eighth to 11th in points at Bristol. "We've got two races left, and I think they'll be good racetracks for us."
Keselowski is confident that he will make the Chase for the third year in a row. He qualified for the 2011 playoffs with a wild card spot. Keselowski has finished third and sixth in the last two races at Atlanta.
"We've tested at the next two tracks, and we're gonna be very competitive," Keselowski said. "I feel like this is gonna come down to the last lap at Richmond, and I'm ready for that battle."
Kurt Busch is trying to put Furniture Row Racing, a single-car team, in the Chase for the first time. Busch had a setback at Bristol, where he finished 31st and dropped from ninth to 12th in the standings. He is just six points behind Logano.
"We need to take care of our own business and not worry about anything else," Busch said. "The Chase has been a goal of our single-car team all year, and right now we're on the doorstep, ready to kick in that door."
Earlier this week, Stewart-Haas Racing formally announced that Busch will drive a fourth car for the team, starting in 2014. He will be teammates with Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick.
Jeff Gordon trails Logano by 11 points, but Gordon has not won a race this season. Last year, he won the August event at Pocono and then finished second at both Atlanta and Richmond to clinch a wild card. He has won at Atlanta five times, most recently in 2011.
"We just need to do our job and get the best results possible these next two races and see how things shake out," Gordon said.
Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the AdvoCare 500.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Sunday, Sept. 1. Race: AdvoCare 500. Site: Atlanta Motor Speedway. Track: 1.54-mile oval. Start time: 7:30 p.m. ET. Laps: 325. Miles: 500.5. 2012 Winner: Denny Hamlin. Television: ESPN. Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.